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564 of 584 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Massie Does It Again!
I really enjoyed this biography of Catherine the Great. Like Robert K. Massie's other biographies, *Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman* is well-researched and well-written. His deep connection and understanding of the ways of Imperial Russia are strangely effortless. He steps into his subject's world and takes us there, too.

I was immediately struck by...
Published on September 25, 2011 by Kayla Rigney

208 of 248 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A merely good book on a great subject
Tackling Catherine the Great is not, and never has been, for the faint of heart. There is a heavy shelf filled with works by the eminent and the colorful, by Oldenberg, Troyat, and others, and there is fascinating original material available as well. But it is no good to praise someone for their Alpine skill when they climb the Himalayas - they have chosen the tougher...
Published on November 8, 2011 by Sam A. Mawn-Mahlau

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564 of 584 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Massie Does It Again!, September 25, 2011
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I really enjoyed this biography of Catherine the Great. Like Robert K. Massie's other biographies, *Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman* is well-researched and well-written. His deep connection and understanding of the ways of Imperial Russia are strangely effortless. He steps into his subject's world and takes us there, too.

I was immediately struck by the way Massie made Catherine *accessible.* I felt empathy for her -- an empathy I didn't feel before. The story of her hideous marriage to Grand Duke Peter has been portrayed often in film and in print. All sources agree he was a monster who preferred his mistress to his wife, was scarred mentally as well as physically by small pox, and had he lived, would have gutted the Russian Orthodox Church -- and probably brought down an entire empire. *Portrait of a Woman* shows not only how badly Catherine was treated by her so-called "husband" but also how quickly she learned the *game* of the Imperial Court. Catherine was beautiful and intelligent -- and frankly, a better ruler than Peter could ever have been. She was well-read and well-educated in a time when most women couldn't read or write. In order to survive in the court, she spent years honing her skills in diplomacy. When her husband didn't produce an heir, she found a lover who would. I felt compassion for this Catherine, *because* she was resourceful and *because* she took action when it was needed. And some of those actions as Empress were taken with her subjects in mind.

Reading *Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman,* allowed me to rediscover a strong, intelligent woman who wanted to bring her Imperial Russia *forward.* In 1768, she and her son Paul were inoculated with small pox -- hoping to show her subjects that there was a way to avoid getting a devastating case of the disease. This small act of bravery on her part was completely overshadowed by the epidemic of bubonic plague which decimated the population of Moscow and eventually led to rioting. How could I have forgotten these important pieces of history? And yet, I had. There are no new answers regarding the murder of Grand Duke Peter -- did she or didn't she? And as to Catherine's relationships with other men in her life, it becomes apparent that there was always that underlying, chafing question of balance of power. (But on the whole, she had good relationships with her lovers; and she rewarded their loyalty.) Her own son, Paul, hated her -- believing that she'd murdered his father, when he wasn't Grand Duke Peter's son in the first place. Paul punished her after her death by reinstating the right of male succession only.

Massie reintroduced me to the very human Catherine, who so loved her dogs that she had a special cemetery created for them at Tsarskoe Selo, And this flawed, yet generous Empress once made a gift of an expensive diamond ring to a serf -- in spite of the uproar it caused. And finally, Catherine, who enjoyed books, reading and philosophy, purchased Voltaire's library of books from his niece after he died. I liked seeing this side of Catherine the Great. I needed to be reminded that her passions and loves were varied as my own are varied.

I spent my weekend immersed in *Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.* I was transported into Catherine's life -- and into a rich, harsh, ugly, beautiful, lost past. Massie's latest biography joins *Nicholas & Alexandra,* *Peter the Great: His Life and World,* and *The Romanovs: The Final Chapter* as must-have books about the rulers of Imperial Russia.
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217 of 231 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Life Of A Woman And A Nation, September 26, 2011
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Catherine the Great is second only to Peter the Great as a great modernizing ruler of Russia, a country which repeatedly falls behind the rest of the world, then races to catch up, at least on the surface, within a few years' time. Catherine's story is even more remarkable than Peter's, since she was not born in Russia and had not a drop of Russian blood, and her original name wasn't even Catherine.

Sophia Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst was an impecunious little princess in an insignificant prinicipality buried deep in Germany. In her early years she seemed destined to marry someone just as obscure as she and to remain unknown to the larger world. Her ambitious mother, who had the good fortune to be related by marriage to the Swedish and Russian royal families, had other plans. She kept in touch with the Empress Elizabeth of Russia, whose nephew and heir was just the right age for Sophia, for many years until Elizabeth sent word for mother and daughter to come to St. Petersburg for a visit. Shortly after they arrived, Sophia's mother and the Empress had arranged for a marriage between 14 year old Sophia and the 15 year old Grand Duke Peter, heir to the Russian throne. Sophia converted to Orthodoxy and had her name changed to Catherine, then married the future Emperor.

It sounds like a fairy tale, but it turned into a nightmare. Peter was a snivelling little wretch who hated Russia, his aunt, and Catherine. Covered with smallpox scars, mentally undeveloped and psychologically unbalanced, Peter refused to have anything to do with Catherine and spent night after night playing with toy soldiers. Catherine, tucked into bed beside him but completely ignored, spent her time reading and learning all she could about her new country. She had a quick and agile mind and did an excellent job educating herself through the writings of the French Enlightenment philosophes. However, all this reading and studying was not going to help her achieve her primary purpose, to have children who would continue the Romanov dynasty. After nine years she achieved this goal with the assistance of a Russian nobleman and gave birth to her son Paul.

In 1762 Empress Elizabeth died and Peter III took the throne. Within six months he had so outraged the Russian people that Catherine, with the assistance of her current lover and his brothers and friends, was able to quickly overthrow him and become Empress Catherine II. Her reign of 34 years saw Russia increase in wealth, population, and land area. She fought and won wars with Turkey and Sweden and helped to partition Poland out of existence. Her wide ranging reading had convinced her of the desireability of religious toleration, increased civil liberties, and of representative government, but she was just as convinced that Russia wasn't ready for such Enlightenment principles. When she did try to make reforms she was frightened into limiting or discarding them entirely by serf rebellions and eventually by the French Revolution. She did encourage education and development, assisted by her friendships with Voltaire and Diderot among others, and she was responsible for beginning the magnificent Hermitage art collection and for a number of beautiful palaces and other buildings in and around St. Petersburg.

Of course, what most people think of when they think of Catherine the Great is her colorful personal life. Catherine had a number of lovers throughout her life, but the popular image of a sex crazed hoyden isn't accurate. She seems to have valued her men friends for their intellectual as well as their physical abilities, and to have craved attention and affection above all. She was faithful to each of her favorites (more than they were to her) and when one retired or was replaced he was given money and land and remembered fondly. As she aged she grew in dignity and influence, and by the time of her death in 1796 Russia was a much larger and more powerful nation which, while still backwards in many ways, had made a surprising amount of progress.

Robert K. Massie's newest work is a fitting companion to Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great, and The Romanovs: The Final Chapter. It also compares well to his excellent studies of Anglo-German rivalry before and during World War I: Dreadnought and Castles of Steel. As always, he writes clearly with a good eye for an entertaining anecdote which helps Catherine's life fit into the larger Russian and European context during the tumultuous eighteenth century. Massie introduced me to Russian history when I first read Nicholas and Alexandra at the age of 14 and confirmed me in my love of the subject with his other books. His Catherine the Great is just as remarkable and appealing, and I cannot recommend it too highly.
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114 of 130 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The definitive Catherine, September 24, 2011
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Portrait of a WOMAN, not an empress, not an autocrat. In his own highly talented way, Pulitzer Prize winner Massie is going to tell us what made Catherine tick underneath the ermine. Massie feels a huge kinship to the House of Romanov, because his son, Robert K. Massie IV, has hemophilia, the disease that devastated many royal families, the most famous sufferer being Alexei, the only son of Tsar Nicholas II. If you've read "Nicholas and Alexandra" "Peter the Great" and other Massie biographies you know how beautifully he writes about Russian royalty and the reader feels that part of Massie's heart is in Russia. He understands and appreciates the handsome and captivating Catherine well as he brings her to life in this splendid biography.

We are going to see a fourteen year old unknown German princess, Sophia of Anhalt, the future Catherine, morph herself into a ship of state with enormous powers. If it is possible for a royal personage to pull herself up by her own bootstraps, Sophia did.

Sophia was ignored by her own mother, Johanna, who wanted a boy, until Johanna realized Sophia was marketable as a bride and peddled her around Germany and later Russia. Massie points out that Sophia-Catherine, denied love as a girl, had a psyche that was seriously wounded, and as an adult and empress she would demand both love and admiration perhaps to an excessive degree. Nevertheless, at fourteen years old Sophia was astonishingly mature and participated with relish in the search for a husband.

That husband would be Peter, nephew of the Empress Elizabeth. The Empress was the daughter of Peter the Great. Massie deals sympathetically with Peter, but a less prepossessing child would have been hard to find with his thin, straggling blonde hair, his protuberant eyes, his weak chin, his lack of being good at anything. A fearsome attack of small pox left his face horribly scarred. A less attractive bridegroom could hardly be imagined but Sophia, who had learned Russian and converted to Orthodox, determined to do her best and the new Catherine was born. The new Catherine with a mind like a steel trap and ambition to match.

Empress Elizabeth wanted an heir and she was obsessed. After their wedding neither Peter nor Catherine seemed to know what they were supposed to do. At night they lay side by side like two logs for days, for weeks... for nine years. Massie discusses the physical problem Peter may have had that prevented him from sexual performance, marveling that France's Louis XVI may have had exactly the same problem. Simple surgery corrected the abnormality in Louis' case and very likely in Peter's, too. At any rate, after nine barren years Catherine gave birth to a boy. Empress Elizabeth as Massie says "kidnapped" the baby, installed him in her own apartments and brought him up as her own.

More or less off the hook as a baby-producer, although she had other children by her lovers. Catherine embarked on the first of the twelve affairs she would have in her life. She also began reading everything penned by Enlightenment philosophers. She corresponded with the famous thinkers of her time, including Voltaire, Frederick the Great, Marie Antoinette and would you believe John Paul Jones?

Catherine, when still very young, learned to keep her head in the treacherous atmosphere of the Romanov court. Back-biting, spite, jealousy, greed, all mingled together in a horrible stew in which a person could be on the top of the pot one day, on the bottom the next and very likely dead, too.

When Empress Elizabeth died on Christmas Day in 1761 Peter was crowned as Peter III and nobody was happy about this except perhaps one of his mistresses. Peter was a total disaster with few if any redeeming points. In a complicated but bloodless coup Peter was overthrown and imprisoned and a few days later strangled. Whether Catherine had any complexity in her husband's murder is argued to this day, but it is quite possible she was innocent.

"She sat on the throne of Peter the Great, and ruled an empire, the largest on earth. Her signature...was law, and if she chose could mean life or death for any one of her twenty million subjects."

Catherine's friends, enemies, lovers, family, generals parade across the Russian panorama and author Massie integrates them into Catherine's life with great skill. Catherine brought Russia out of the dark ages in a massive plan of "Westernization". The government, foreign policy, cultural affairs, the squashing of a huge rebellion by an illiterate peasant imposter who claimed to be Peter III, the massive problem of serfdom were all in her dainty hands.

But governing for Catherine wasn't enough. She thirsted for love and her twelve lovers, all Guards officers are described in detail. These relationships were rocky, filled with accusations on both sides. Catherine's husband, Peter III had not touched her for nine years, her own mother used her as a pawn to advance herself. As Catherine aged, the men became younger and younger as Catherine tried to find love and retain her youth.

The most famous of her lovers was Gregory Potemkin who was the most important person in her life for seventeen years and was it was possible that they married secretly. He was in everything but name co-ruler. When the couple's ardor waned, Gregory found young handsome Guards to fill the void in Catherine's life while remaining on friendly terms with Catherine There were a lot of ménage a trois.

One of the last dramas of Catherine's life concerned her son Paul, who had been taken from her at birth. There was some doubt that Paul was Peter III's son. He was an odd-looking boy with features rather like a pug dog. Paul and his mother hardly knew one another and there was no love lost between them. But Paul gave Catherine many grandchildren, and she doted on them and named the first two boys herself, Alexander and Constantine.

Catherine had assembled the greatest art gallery in Europe, the Hermitage and she commissioned the statue of Peter the Great, "The Bronze Horseman" who still rides his rearing horse near the Winter Palace. She established schools and orphanages and hospitals. She had herself inoculated with the new vaccine for smallpox as an example, which took courage. Massie believes that Catherine as a female ruler had only one equal: England's Elizabeth the first. She died November 6, 1796 and she passed into history beside Peter the Great as Russia's two greatest rulers.
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208 of 248 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A merely good book on a great subject, November 8, 2011
Tackling Catherine the Great is not, and never has been, for the faint of heart. There is a heavy shelf filled with works by the eminent and the colorful, by Oldenberg, Troyat, and others, and there is fascinating original material available as well. But it is no good to praise someone for their Alpine skill when they climb the Himalayas - they have chosen the tougher climb, and it will measure them.

Massie brings capable writerly craftsmenship, a deep knowledge of Russian history, and a reader-friendly commercial sheen to bear, applying each tool with care, and writes a highly readable and engaging biography. But, in the end, I'm left unsatisfied. It was a fun read and the hours were well-spent. The work is worthy of, and will get, some attention; the subject is worthy, however, of more and better. Massie's opening chapters draw so heavily from Catherine's own memoirs that I wish I would have read them instead. The book adds a bit of harmless gloss to the memoirs, but gives us a redacted and bloodless summary in place of the real thing. Massie's later chapters promise a deeper analytical framework yet skate through with less detail or analysis than, say, the great Riasanovsky surveys. Massie offers little here that is terribly new and interesting. There was no Eureka moment, no insightful rebellion, just a recital from the Orthodox liturgy.

If you have a bias toward reading contemporary works instead of dusty classics, you may prefer Massie's Catherine over those other books on the shelf. But, in the end, I wish Massie had applied his tools to some interesting but inadequately explored character he could have brought to life rather than writing what is really just another capable book on an already heavy shelf, adding a pound or two but not much more to what is already there. He gets a solid three stars, but no more.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Adequate, hardly stellar, February 22, 2012
Doug (South Bend, IN USA) - See all my reviews
I've often heard that Robert Massie is an excellent history writer. This book provides little evidence of that greatness. The first third of the book is about an unknown princess plucked from obscurity by an empress to be the wife of her nephew, the future Czar Peter III of Russia. Her early life was full of parties, balls, and family politics.

The book gets better, though that's not an endorsement. The remaining two thirds are a bit jumbled. Massie organizes much of the book by topic, not chronologically. After the chapter documenting the death of her former favorite, and probably only husband, Grigory Potemkin, in 1791, we get a chapter on her interest in collecting art, beginning in 1771. There are several such bounces and they were disorienting. Perhaps the disorientation was magnified by the fact that I was listening to the book on my daily commute, not reading it with a chance to check my progress or look things up in the index.

Finally, there are several very long, and possibly tangential, asides on several topics. For example, I now know quite a bit more than before about the French Revolution and the advantages (and experiments to test those advantages) of the guillotine as a method of execution. I expected stories of blinking heads in Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but not here I'm not sure why I needed to know so much about these events or this device to understand how this lead to Catherine's imposition of censorship in Russia.

I will give Mr. Massie another chance, having already purchased Dreadnought but if it's on the same level as this one, I won't make it to the end.
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not the Author's Best, November 8, 2011
I received this pre-published edition of Robert Massie's Catherine the Great as part of the Early Reviewers program of Library Thing. I received the biography free of charge in exchange for this review.

I had high hopes for this work based upon my experience with two of Massie's previous works, Peter the Great and Dreadnought, both of which I found outstanding. Quite some time ago, I read a previous biography of Catherine the Great written by Henri Troyat and found her life story to be fascinating. Having said that, I must say I was somewhat disappointed with this biography.

Perhaps my disappointment stems from excessive expectations, but in any event I found it failed to measure up to Massie's earlier work. When compared to the Troyat biography, while I found this work to be more approachable and reader friendly, it was lacking in the more detailed and deeper analysis provided by Troyat. By no means is this a poor effort, but the subject matter is about as rich as it comes and I found Massie's result to be somewhat pedestrian and simple. All the bases are covered from a factual standpoint, but the book is quite weak when it comes to any kind of analysis. The history is set out in a series of short, choppy chapters (over seventy chapters, each of which is broken into further subsections) that do little more than take the reader from event to event in the life of Catherine, one of the most intriguing lives of the period.

Massie is a fine biographer and historian. I can't help but feel that with subject matter this rich, he could have done far better.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ponderous and Painful, April 1, 2012
About 100 pages in to this novel, I began to wonder if it receives such glowing reviews because people are so proud that they made it to the end. While it is obviously extensively researched, it is also incredibly repetitive. I did not like Massie's "vignette" style and habit of repeating things I had read only a few paragraphs prior. Catherine is a fascinating woman and I appreciate Massie's dedication to his subject. It seems that his dedication just took him a bit too far and, as a reader, mired me down and left me uninspired. History is a favorite subject of mine and I am disappointed that I cannot reccommend this book.
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23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A rich, character-oriented biographical novel of a remarkable queen, November 19, 2011
Tracy M (Arlington, MA USA) - See all my reviews
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In his superb biographical novel of Catherine the Great, Robert Massie brings Catherine to life by enabling us to experience her feelings, thoughts and motivations, and therefore understand how her actions, both personal and political, derived from her character.

Massie reveals many facets of this remarkable woman as he guides us through the stages of her life:
-- as a young, naive but intelligent and educated German princess manipulated by a scheming mother;
-- as wife to the emotionally imbalanced and sadistic heir to the Russian throne, Peter III;
-- as object of Queen Elizabeth's jealousy and hopes for an heir;
-- as a capable queen who took the throne in a coup against her incompetent husband king;
-- as an ambitious ruler influenced by Enlightenment philosophers, determined to improve the lot of the Russian people while extending the Russian empire;
-- as a lonely woman, who needed lover-companions, and had twelve "favorites" throughout her lifetime, including Grigory Potemkin;
--as a mother struggling with ambivalent feelings toward her son and heir Paul, who was likely the son of Saltykov rather than Peter;
--as a devotee of art, who amassed the largest art collection ever known, and built the Hermitage.

Drawing from Catherine's actual memoirs, letters and diaries, Massie often presents Catherine's own words about her life, and provides revealing anecdotes which enable us to envision her situation. We are led, for example, to imagine being married to Peter when Massie tells us, "Peter presided over a daily changing of the guard ceremony in which a fresh detachment of toy soldiers, assigned to mount guard, replaced those who were relieved of duty... Peter always appeared at this ceremony in full Holstein dress uniform."

In regard to her love life, Massie introduces us to each of the men with whom Catherine forms monogamous relationships. Massie tells us: "During her lifetime, Catherine had twelve lovers....Of the twelve, she loved five......For another three, she felt passion. There others were quickly chosen and quickly discarded. The twelfth and last....was in a category of his own."

Empathically, he allows us to understand her motivation: "She wanted to love and be loved. She had lived with an impossible husband in an emotional vacuum. To read her letter to Potemkin is to realize that as much as physical satisfaction, she wanted intelligent, loving companionship."

Throughout the book, Massie also provides us with the political context for Catherine's reign, introducing us to the many domestic and international political decisions she made, and their consequences. A notable one was her creation of an assembly of over 500 delegates from all levels of Russian society including merchants and free peasants (but not serfs) - "the first attempt in imperial Russia to give the people a voice in their own political destiny." But the experiment was not particularly successful due to the divergent interests of the representatives: "No new code of Russian laws was produced. The distance stretching between an Enlightenment philosopher's definition of an ideal monarchy and the immediate problems of everyday life in rural Russia were simply too great."

For me, Massie's ability to enable us to understand Catherine's motivation and choices in many facets of her life contributed to the book's considerable readability. Massie's psychological perspective also enabled me to relate Catherine's dilemmas to current times.

For example, Catherine sought and held power, but required love. How does a woman resolve the tension between her desire for control or independence and her need for loving intimacy? One need not be a queen to wrestle with these issues. Or consider the shift in Catherine's idealistic and reformist attitudes as she dealt with the violence of serf rebellions and faced the reality that the supporters who kept her in power depended upon serf labor. Her own shift in political philosophy and action is reflected today by many Democratic leaders in the U.S. who shed some of their ideals and move toward center as they confront the complexities of political life.

CATHERINE THE GREAT has few flaws. I wish that Massie had included a genealogy, maps, and an index of names - keeping straight all the Anne's and Catherine's is not easy. He could have written about her educational reforms, some of which were oriented toward females and orphans. He might have explained more directly how Catherine accumulated the massive wealth which she bestowed on friends and lovers as well as her costly art collection, although doing so might have made us less empathetic, and more aware of the discrepancy between her attitudes and actions.

But these issues are minor. CATHERINE THE GREAT is a rich and rewarding biographical novel, highly readable, well-researched, and remarkably insightful, both psychologically and politically.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good but not great, February 1, 2012
I read Massie's Peter the Great and absolutely loved it. That book is everything a popular biography should be: well written, rich in detail, strong in analysis and social/historical context, and most of all, very successful in bringing its subject to life.

I was therefore excited to read this new Massie biography. On its own, it's not a bad book by any means. Once again, Massie does a great job portraying Catherine's personality; you feel like you really get to know her. He is much aided by the memoirs and numerous personal letters Catherine left behind. Massie makes excellent use of this material, quoting freely and revealingly from Catherine's writings. The image that emerges is of a strong, practical, witty, opinionated, rather acerbic woman of the world. What's interesting about Catherine is she had the strength and self-confidence to seize the throne of an empire, yet she was never a self-centered egomaniac like so many rulers. She had a pretty clear-headed view of her own strengths and weaknesses, and she didn't lose sight of that, even after ruling for thirty-some years. I certainly can't approve of many of her policies as empress. However, there's no doubt she was a highly unusual and interesting person.

As in Peter the Great, Massie's writing is excellent: smoothly flowing and easy to read. He does a fine job covering the topics he chooses to highlight. However, I was left with many unanswered questions.

First and foremost, I wanted more information on Catherine as a mother. Massie tells us a lot about Catherine as a wife and lover, but little about her and her children. He relates the births of her two officially acknowledged children, Paul and Anna, and tells us that Empress Elizabeth essentially stole both children from Catherine. We then hear almost nothing further about Paul, Catherine's heir, until page 400 or so. There is no discussion of how Catherine felt about the loss of her children or what her limited relationship with them was like. Massie also provides little to no information about Catherine's relationship, if any, with her illegitimate son Count Bobrinsky. I've read in other sources that Catherine may have had an illegitimate daughter, Elizabeth; Massie doesn't mention her possible existence, even to refute it. Overall, I felt like the lack of discussion of Catherine's relationship with her children was a major flaw in this book. I can only assume Massie found it more juicy to write about her lovers. :-)

Another area that falls quite a bit short is the general social and historical context of Catherine's time. Massie did much, much better with this in Peter the Great. In that book, he really described all the sectors of Russian society in Peter's time--peasants, aristocrats, priests--so you could feel and understand the world Peter was from. In that book, he also did a better job of describing the relative character and power of other major European powers, so you understood the political context of Peter's time. Not so in this book. Here Massie provides a section on the serfs (focusing overmuch on lurid sexual details), but no corresponding section on the Russian gentry/aristocracy. There is a decent discussion of the French Revolution, but more information was needed on the significance of Prussia and Frederick the Great, as well as Austria. Massie spends too much time on figures like Voltaire and John Paul Jones (I didn't need to know the life story of each), and not enough on more important people in Catherine's life. In general, the book could have used a stronger editorial hand; certain areas receive too much emphasis, others not enough. And the second half of the book suffers from a rather episodic, disjointed quality.

So, overall, I think this book is fine on its own and a decent introduction to Catherine the Great. But I doubt it will become the definitive biography of its subject, like Massie's much superior Peter the Great.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fine narrative of a truly amazing life, November 2, 2011
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This is a good book: a wonderfully intriguing lead character, a rich range of stories to tell, and an engagingly easy style. I recommend it but want to point to a few limits and gaps that may affect your decision to buy it. First, it is long - almost exactly 600 pages - and so packed with interesting individual events and well-presented episodes that after a while they lose a little pace and variety.

A number of Amazon reviewers have described the narrative in some detail, so I will not add to their descriptions. Catherine was an extraordinary figure in so many ways. She also stacked the historical deck through her Memoirs. This is in many ways bounds any biography of her. They establish Catherine's own perspective on events and to some extent disarm alternative lines of exploration. This has its pluses; it allows the biographer to bring her to life and gives a shape to the narrative where all that is needed is go with the flow of her life story. I do not know how accurate her self-portrayal is, or what she omits or glosses over. Mr. Massie makes a strong case that she was about as capable a ruler and overall a pretty good person as you'll find in the annals of monarchical power.

She was astounding in her achievements, judgments, partnerships with highly effective and loyal ministers and generals, and political courage. She maneuvered her way through bizarre and dangerous family politics from the time she was a German teen of minor royal lineage, imported with only one job requirement - to bear an heir to her increasingly weird husband - to her usurping his succession to the Imperial crown. She was as skilled in her choice of and treatment of lovers in her prime, before she went on to the toyboy later phase of her life that led to the lurid tales of her being a sexual predator with an out of control libido. She used power well and honorably. She had a first rate mind, transformed the arts and sciences of her nation, and did what she could to counter the backward elements of Russian society, including serfdom and the orthodox church's grasp on resources and politics. Massie's portrayal is sympathetic and balanced.

The limitation for me is that the wider historical context seems muted. It's a little as if the other major figures - Frederick the Great, Maria Theresa and the kings of England, France and Sweden - take on life only in relation to Catherine. So, too, the world-reshaping wars that led to Britain's overtaking France as the dominant North American and global power are blurred. But is well-written and well-structured.

These are minor cavils. To some degree, the oft-told story is almost impossible to make less than interesting and Massie's book joins others as a fine historical biography. I would have liked more selectivity in the detail and more commentary and analysis. It's not new in any striking way - it follows fairly closely the tone and overall assessment of, say, Troyat's influential biography.
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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie (Paperback - September 18, 2012)
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